Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

"Excellent"

Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids Review


Episodic and drenched in realism, as opposed to the overly structured and simplistic narrative often thrust upon documentaries about people leaving in desperate Third World circumstances, Born Into Brothels is an inspirational work that still keeps its head on its shoulders. Viewers' entry point to the tawdry, lively, and often hope-destroying world of North Calcutta's red light district is Zana Briski, a British photographer (by way of New York) who has taken it upon herself to help out the children born to prostitutes in the district in the best way she knows: by teaching them photography.

If it sounds like an impossibly precious idea, the kind of thing that sounds great in some nice Upper West Side apartment yet falls apart in the harsh light of reality, Briski is an admirably tough-minded customer who seems as likely a candidate as any to marry an aesthetic sensibility with a desire to do right for the world. She stays mostly in the background during the film, ceding the spotlight to the children in her small makeshift class. There's Kochi, a wide-eyed girl running errands for the hooker upstairs, Shanti and Manik, sister and brother who fly kites on the roof while their mother is "working," and Puja, whose sly, grown-up demeanor foreshadow the life that awaits most of them.

Knowing that girls raised in this district almost inevitably end up as prostitutes themselves - the camera's slow trawl through the narrow alleyways finds sad-looking, heavily made-up working girls who can't be older than 13 or 14 - Briski does what she can to get them into boarding schools. It's a tough struggle, as many families are resistant to the idea, looking forward to the time when these 10-year-olds can go "in the line" (turn tricks) and start making money. In between teaching photography to her kids, who call her "Zana Auntie," Briski fights with local bureaucrats, rounding up all the Byzantine paperwork needed to enroll them in the schools.

The kids themselves are a wonderful group, ranging from the shy Suchitra (one of whose photographs ends up gracing the front of an Amnesty International calendar) to the gregarious and odd Avijiti, a bona fide artist before Briski even found him. They dash about the mad Calcutta streets with their small cameras clutched tightly, snapping pictures of their chaotic, painful, and beautiful world. The pictures that result are often beautiful and occasionally astonishing, especially Avijijti's work, and it's this talent that Briski brings out in the kids which keeps the film (like so many examples of its well-meaning genre) from ever seeming condescending. There is true art being created here, and it adds even more urgency to Briski's work to get them into schools.

Briski defies convention by refusing to make herself into a benevolent, Mother Teresa-like figure descending into the exotic slums, and instead appears as simply a teacher wanting to help her talented students make a better life for themselves, much as any teacher would anywhere. The occasional flaw in technique - especially some padded-for-length musical sequences - does little to obscure the spirit of this truly unique piece of nonfiction filmmaking.

Born into Studebaker.



Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

Facts and Figures

Run time: 85 mins

In Theaters: Friday 29th July 2005

Box Office USA: $3.4M

Box Office Worldwide: $3.5M

Budget: $350 thousand

Distributed by: Think Film

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Fresh: 101 Rotten: 4

IMDB: 7.8 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman

Producer: Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman

Starring: Zana Briski as Herself "Zana Auntie"

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